MINNEAPOLIS — Four years ago, Hannah Barnstable set out to solve breakfast.
“It’s sort of a forgotten mealtime in the U.S.,” said Ms. Barnstable, who co-founded the Seven Sundays muesli brand with her husband, Brady. “Growing up, it was always a big deal in our households to sit down and eat breakfast and have it be an actual meal time — not just running around and eating something that was really processed or bad for you.
“With Seven Sundays, we wanted to create a product that solves breakfast, that gives you that feeling of a Sunday, when you may take a little more time or put a little more thought into what you’re eating in the morning.”
The couple fell in love with muesli while honeymooning in New Zealand and was disappointed to discover few varieties were available in the United States.
“There are a couple brands imported from Europe that work just fine in Europe, but... I don’t think they’ve ever really excited the typical U.S. consumer in what we are used to for breakfast in flavors,” Ms. Barnstable said.
Ms. Barnstable left her investment banking job to launch the business in 2011. Her husband, an environmental consultant, joined in 2013.
“I always wanted to start my own company, and I was very inspired in my job, because I worked with a lot of founders of food companies, and it was something I was passionate about,” she said. “The first three years of the company was just me. I’d make it and sell in the farmers market. We had our son, so I got a co-packer. But it really was just me figuring out what it takes to build a food brand and get people excited about muesli.”
Seven Sundays’ distribution expanded at the beginning of the year to 4,000 stores nationwide, including Target. Made with nuts, seeds, fruits, whole grains and organic honey, muesli varieties include original toasted, vanilla cherry pecan, ginger pear macadamia, Bircher (an unsweetened Swiss-style muesli), and gluten-free blueberry chia buckwheat.
“When I started the company, it was an uphill battle,” Ms. Barnstable said. “We hit a lot of hurdles with retailers and consumers just on the category. It feels like now more than ever this category is coming out of its shell and growing, and you see a lot of people writing about it…
“Some of the bigger cereal brands are also going to be launching into category, which is super exciting for us in order to give some lift and awareness to the category.”
This summer, Seven Sundays plans to expand into the nutrition bar category with the launch of breakfast squares. At about 300 calories and 5 to 7 grams of protein and fiber per square, flavors include blueberry lemon chia, cocoa pumpkin seed, and banana toasted pecan.
“Most of the bar set is processed and very sugary, so what we’re trying to offer is something that can be a complete meal, if you’re traveling or just don’t have a lot of time in the morning but still want good quality ingredients, like chia seeds, coconut oil, maple syrup,” Ms. Barnstable said. “With our flavor profiles, our goal was to really feel like you’re eating something special, like it was prepared for you, and it’s fresh and has really nice flavors.”
In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Barnstable shared product development and business insights behind the breakfast brand.
Food Business News: What prompted the company to enter the bar category?
Hannah Barnstable: Muesli was the heart of our brand and still is. I think muesli was perfect because the cereal aisle has been declining. With a lot of the processed cereals, people are realizing they are not good for you, they’re not offering you a meal. If I pour a cold bowl of cereal, that’s not going to make me feel special in the morning.
With the squares, we were really trying to figure out the breakfast market. When you’re traveling or on the go or you don’t have the time to sit down and prepare a breakfast, there is a big hole in the market where your options are very limited. And it almost felt like you were sacrificing something, whether it was taste or nutrition.
Similar to how we thought about muesli and how it fit into the cereal category where we wanted to offer something special and higher quality and better-for-you, we wanted to bring something like that to the handheld breakfast market, where a lot of times we see moms buying a box of Nutri-Grain bars, not because it inspired them but because they need it. It’s a utility. We wanted to bring more to that category than just convenience.
How do you explain muesli to U.S. consumers? What are the benefits?
Ms. Barnstable: The quickest way to explain muesli is it’s an unprocessed cereal. It’s somewhat similar to granola but not baked as long and doesn’t have as much sugar and doesn’t have any oil added. It’s a little looser and lighter than a standard granola. It’s not real toasted and sweet.
Because of that, it’s more versatile. It’s not just a standard pour-a-cold-bowl-of-cereal. A lot of people enjoy it warm. It’s super easy to make in a microwave and stove top, or just add hot water to your bowl and let it sit for a minute.
The traditional way to eat muesli is to soak in cold milk for 15 minutes or up to overnight, and then you put some fruit and yogurt on top, and it’s just the most perfect little breakfast.
Did you develop your flavors to make muesli more approachable to American consumers?
Ms. Barnstable: Totally. There really aren’t a lot of muesli brands out there. We’re really the main one from a U.S. perspective. So it was really important to us to come into the market and reinvigorate the category with flavors and nutritional things that excited people. We use Brazil nuts and cinnamon and cardamom and macadamia nuts and ginger.
The blueberry chia buckwheat, our new gluten-free flavor, has been flying because of the blueberry and chia flavor profile. I think that is where we really hit it.
Muesli has been around forever in the U.S., but it’s always been a couple brands on the bottom shelf collecting dust. We wanted to change that.
Tell me about the innovation process at your company.
Ms. Barnstable: Product development for us really comes from me. I’m a big foodie, and I like making things from scratch. That’s been pretty important. It’s a little nerve-wracking because I don’t have a food science background or anything like that, but I do know enough about using clean ingredients and things that work well together to at least get it started.
Then we use a network of manufacturers and other foodies, we send out samples and do tastings to really refine it.
But the heart of the product still comes internally. A lot of times it’s in my own kitchen at home with the ingredients I like to use. No sugars and things like coconut oil, more nutrient-dense stuff.
And we love to entertain, so we use that. We host a lot of brunches to test out flavors and buckwheat and fig and different things to see where people’s taste buds are at or what the trends are in the market.
How did you determine the three flavors for the breakfast squares?
Ms. Barnstable: The first thing we did was come up what we’d personally like and what we see in the market, what combinations and flavors really work well together. Although we see the utility of this product being consumed throughout the day, we were thinking about what are some good warm breakfast flavors.
That’s where we said, “This banana toasted pecan would be so great if it was almost like a banana bread flavor profile.” But very clean and nutrient-dense, so you almost feel like you’re getting a treat but don’t have to eat a bunch of sugar to get it.
Blueberry lemon chia has a fresh berry, lemon zesty muffin-type flavor. And then the cocoa and pumpkin seed were just two things I had been dying to match up.
So we start with the overall theme of the product line, which for us was “warm and appealing.” And then the second step is making sure you are covering your bases a little.
For example, we wanted the three to be different enough where we’re capturing different types of audiences. So we think of the lemon blueberry chia and the cocoa pumpkin seed as being a little bit more on the foodie side, or explorative side, but that banana toasted pecan fits in nicely for people who just want something very simple.
We did that with our muesli, too. We have a ginger pear macadamia flavor, which is clearly for someone who’s a little more of a foodie, but then we have a vanilla cherry pecan. We always call that our opening muesli. If you’ve never had muesli before, go for the vanilla cherry pecan. It has a beautiful texture, with cherries and pecans, but nothing extraordinary in there. It’s a very simple profile.
On the success of the gluten-free muesli, are you planning to introduce more gluten-free items in the future?
Ms. Barnstable: Anything we do going forward will be gluten-free, but not in the sense of ‘let’s take a normal product that has gluten in it and change it.’ We don’t really need gluten. We don’t use any wheat in our muesli, but we have rye and barley in some of the flavors because I love the nutritional benefits and tastes of them.
And we’re also switching over our vanilla cherry pecan muesli to gluten-free, and that’s just a matter of switching to gluten-free oats and making it in our gluten-free room.
As far as our other mueslis, we don’t have a plan to switch them over yet to gluten-free because we do like using the multiple grains in there, but it could be something we consider in the future if the trend keeps on going in the direction it’s going.
Do you see the company entering other food categories in the future?
Ms. Barnstable: I hope so. That’s our plan. That’s what gets me most excited. But it’s hard. We have four full-time employees. We’re still very small from a resources perspective, and the reality is none of us has every founded a food company before. We’re cautious.
We are going to launch the squares this year, and then my goal is by later this year or early next year, we’ll try to figure out what other holes there are in the breakfast market and start on the next thing and launch something early next year as well.
But it will be breakfast products.
Ms. Barnstable: That’s where our heart is, but what’s happening right now is consumers are eating quote-unquote “breakfast food” more throughout the day. We’re not going to start introducing dinner solutions, specifically, but I think our products will more and more be broadly used throughout the day.Our hearts and where our brand is is solving breakfast and making sure that’s a priority.